This month’s Project of the Month was selected by our team. We’re big fans of this project because first of all, it’s just way cool. Secondly, it serves an awesome purpose of engaging kids in engineering. Go check out the West Point Bridge Designer and Contest and see what kind of bridge you can make that will hold up to the test and at a practical cost.
d.: Please tell me about your project, West Point Bridge Designer and Contest, and how or why this came into being in the
Col. Ressler: This is a team of 3 effort; I work on this with my brother Steve, who is a civil engineer and also a Colonel / Professor at West Point. I am the computer guy and Cathy Bale is our coordinator, doubling as publicist; we all do this part time. This project is designed to interest kids in engineering careers. We hope that this is a good introduction to what engineering is about, in a form that is digestible by kids – ages 13 and up.
We started building this in 1999 as a one-time event for the bicentennial of West Point. West Point was of course created by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 as the nation’s first engineering school because he saw the need for people with skills to map out and build all kinds of infrastructure across a huge land mass. Today, West Point’s programs are still about half Math, Science, & Engineering, a classical liberal education. Since 2002 was a big celebration of the school’s history, we wanted to do something that not only celebrated that, but also highlighted our engineering heritage. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have some sort of engineering competition? We looked at things others had done: balsa wood bridges, toothpick bridges, etc. We were looking for interesting ways to celebrate engineering…
With these existing contest formats, you build the bridge and then destroy it to see how strong it was. But that’s not how it works in real life. The joy of creating something that will endure is a big part of the experience. If the bridge breaks, you’ve failed. So we decided to try a virtual contest that would take this into account. My brother had done much work by 1999 on an educational bridge design program in Visual Basic. I had done enough web site development to be pretty sure we could make a national contest work with only the three of us if we had a clever back office operation. Some of the technology I used originally is “ancient” now: perl, Sybase for the database, and custom web services in C for scalability (though the term web services hadn’t yet been coined). It all worked. We had about 20,000 kids participate in the first year. They submitted over 50,000 designs. The system allowed us to review and post scoreboard updates a few times per day. We were congratulating ourselves and moving on to other things. Then, teachers from around the country starting calling and emailing, asking when next year’s contest would start. We decided to do it one more year and have now done that 11 times, 12 contests in all.
We have been living with design decisions we made back in 1999. Until about 2 years ago, this code was closed source as I didn’t have time to make it Open Source. I teach computer science and made a decision to take the code Open Source as a professional exercise to learn the tools get some street cred in the classroom. My first Rails app is a re-implementation of the back end on that platform. I am open to expanding development and the team. I hope continued contribution to the contest can be a retirement activity in a couple of years. For example, a sponsor has come forward to make the Bridge Designer mobile on iPad, etc.
d.: Tell me about the program itself.
Col. R.: The program is a simplified CAD interface; it looks like a drafting board with just 4 tools. The designer can drop joints and connect them with members, which are simulated pieces of steel. The designer’s job is to span a river gap with triangles consisting of joints and members. You can then press a button and see an animation of a truck crossing the bridge. If your bridge works, the truck keeps going over the bridge. You can fly around to see different points of view and also what the driver sees. The program includes color coding that shows the stresses different parts of the bridge are carrying in real time. If you fail to build a viable bridge, the truck breaks it and falls into the river. Once you have a working bridge, the next thing is to note the upper right hand corner of the window shows a dollar figure, which is the cost of that bridge. You need to get this cost down to make a cheaper bridge that succeeds. This is how your rank in the contest is decided. Cheapest bridge wins. The cost model makes decreasing the cost both realistic and difficult, just like true life engineering. Kids who are the best in the world at this are amazing. One usually beats my brother’s best design each year about 15 minutes after the contest starts. He’s a civil engineer. I guess today you’d call this crowd-sourced design optimization.
The biggest contest was about 40,000 kids submitting nearly 80,000 bridges. The back end of the contest infrastructure tracks everything we need to enforce the contest rules – and kids worldwide can keep track of their standing minute by minute. They can see the top 30 teams in the world. There is a process to review scoreboards. Also, anyone can run a local contest with their own scoreboard. Groups from homeschool co-ops up to foreign countries have done this.
d.: As a Colonel in the Army, how did you get here?
Col. R: My brother Steve is also a Colonel in the Army and is the head of civil & mechanical engineering here at West Point; he just retired. I am the head of the electrical engineering and computer science department. I joined the Army through West Point, graduated in 1978, served as engineer officer in field until 1993. I then came here and have been here ever since – about 20 years. Professors at the U.S. Military Academy normally serve out their careers as such until retirement once they are appointed.
d.: Why was taking your project Open Source important?
Col. R.: I believe that there is great potential for the contest by going OSS, to tap enormous expertise in OSS community; I think that we can take the technology to the next level. Social media can help make the contest more collaborative. I want to engage the OSS community to get ideas to implement this.
d.: What possibilities exist?
Col. R.: Going mobile is the next big thing for this project; schools are making iPads available to students. I’m trying to gauge the Android platform (tablets) uptake. I would like to get a mobile tablet version of the Bridge Builder client, then relook at the whole back end infrastructure. I’d like to integrate it better for how kids interact on the Internet and with platforms. Social media is probably an untapped resource. The third thing is to broaden the bridge building scenario. This is a very male oriented task. Boys are stimulated by this challenge. Girls don’t seem to be attracted as much to this particular scenario. We know that research indicates girls are attracted to problems that involve people. We want to broaden the scenario to include a social dimension. I had envisioned incorporating environmental conditions, making scenarios where property must be condemned so that the people in a village have to move… Our project does not have these sorts of elements right now. Adding them may help make this more attractive to women / girls. Right now, there is about a 70/30 mix of boys versus girls in this competition; we would like to see it move closer to 50/50. The technology for the program is now relatively up to date; it’s built on Java and OpenGL. The backend is in Rails for Heroku. This is my first rails project; it may not be pretty, but it’s there and functional.
d.: What cost the most time to solve?
Col. R.: In 1999 there were so many questions about how to do something like this. We had a lot of publicity back then due to the Bicentennial. There weren’t that many big websites, and pre-built infrastructure for high volume web traffic didn’t exist. We designed a web capability that had to work just in case we happened to get 2, 5, or 10 million users; we needed to be prepared to handle that level of traffic. We also had prizes in the 5 figure range, so we had concerns about the legal risks. We wanted to avoid damaging West Point’s reputation at all costs. That was our nightmare. The contest needed to be part of the celebration, not a liability. In the end, there were no significant outages or system failures. The contest has never grown to that point of millions of users, but we’re still ready for that kind of load. We designed everything by assuming we might get 1 in 10 of schools in the U.S. to participate. In the end, this was reasonable. We rolled our own server scheme to grow capacity on the fly. It’s a primitive version of what Heroku today calls “dynos.”
d.: And the next contest?
Col. R.: We don’t have dates yet, but it will be at about the same as last year, in the spring. See http://bridgecontest.usma.edu for the schedule. We will publish on this site any day now. Registration will open and once things start, we have a qualifying round which ends in late March. The semifinals are generally in April and are done using the same internet infrastructure. We recruit a teacher or other volunteer to watch each kid at that level, so there are many folks involved. Then, small groups of finalists comes to West Point in May; the contestants are flown out with their parents and the final round is held in West Point facilities. At the end, we have an awards dinner and ceremony. It’s all a blast.
d.: Out of the past winners, have any gone onto West Point?
Col. R.: To our knowledge, no finalist has attended West Point. But I have done informal surveys and found about 1 in 30 cadets either knew about or participated in the contest. But remember our main goal is to get kids into engineering. Most finalists end up as science or engineering students in college. We have been able to track this to some extent. Cathy Bale is key for this because she forms personal relationships with teachers and contestants. This program has achieved a lot of what we set out to achieve, or we wouldn’t keep doing
Another way to win is locally. Anyone in the world can write Cathy and request a local contest code; this registers them in a local contest, which provides a custom autogenerated scoreboard. There are contests at small group, school, district, cities like Boston and other levels up to states. The West Virginia state bridge contest is one of our favorites run by a great group in their Highways department. Other countries have conducted contests! In all, this has helped build a community of educators who are in our network, which allows us to continue to reach kids year to year.
d.: What else do I need to know?
Col. R.: The American Society of Civil Engineers has been a financial sponsor for a long time. They currently provide most of the financial resources. As a government official, I can’t endorse them or what they do, but it’s a fact that their donations have enabled the
contest to flourish. As you can read on the web site, the 2013 contest offered a $10,000 prize for first place, $5,000 for second. All team members who get to the finals received a laptop computer.
d.: There you go; a big thank you to Colonel Ressler and his brother Colonel Ressler at West Point. Also, from SourceForge, a special thanks to the American Society of Civil Engineers for their support of this most awesome project and contest. Go check it out.
Daniel Hinojosa – SourceForge Community Manager